Like most composers trained in Leipzig during the nineteenth century, Sullivan learned a particular use of certain expression marks, such as sf and the signs < and >, often thought to apply exclusively to musical dynamics. In the music of Mendelssohn and his disciples, however, they frequently invite the player to make a musical gesture, which may involve speed changes, or rhetorical hesitation or anticipation. These performing strategies are often effectively combined at the piano with aspects of what is called dislocation – the many different ways of not playing the notes together (bringing out certain contrapuntal lines by anticipation, for instance) that were absolutely central to all nineteenth-century piano playing. All these devices foster a lithe variability in what can otherwise seem an over-regular metre.
It is a tantalising thought that Sullivan may have been referring to some such subtle variation of metre when he pointed out that Hans Richter, newly appointed to conduct the Birmingham Festival in 1884, ‘knows none of the traditions of those choral works which form a large element in the Festival’. The Musical Times criticised Richter’s 1888 performance of Sullivan’s The Golden Legend for its lack of understanding of the composer’s style. It is certainly the case that Sullivan’s choral music often suffrs from being presented as an undifferentiated stream of minims, and that interventionist phrasing can transform it; and just as certain that composers in England had long paid particular attention to marks of expression in solo songs. The performers on this recording understand Sullivan as the heir to a subtle tradition.
Sullivan has borne an unusual degree of ignorant misunderstanding, both in his lifetime and since, as critics of narrow experience reproach him for what he is not. Some would-be experts have confected critical assessments that fly in the face of this writer’s long performing experience of Sullivan, and of the joyful reactions of audiences. The neglect of, say, the Duo Concertante for cello and piano is only explicable in the light of such speciously reasoned dismissals as we find in Percy Young’s book on Sullivan. One is reminded of the assessment that Vaughan Williams offered of the book by Imogen Holst on the music of her father: ‘I don’t know why she wrote it, if she disliked her father’s music so much’.
Of course, uncritical acclaim of the whole of a composer’s output would be unreasonable; but consider how Sir Peter Maxwell Davies characterised his little piano piece Farewell to Stromness. Having compared his symphonies to cathedrals, he compared it to a garden shed – but, he insisted, a beautifully designed and sturdily built garden shed, of which he was immensely proud. It was, of course, the garden shed, rather than the cathedrals, that illustrated the news bulletins reporting his death. In the light of this architectural analogy, we may think of Sullivan’s songs as pleasure domes, as pavilions and pagodas for our delight.